With just over two weeks left until Opening Day, there are a surprising number of question marks about the 2021 Detroit Tigers roster. Surprising mainly because the Tigers actually have several difficult decisions facing them. For three seasons now, the players who mattered were obvious, while many of the final spots simply went to whoever was available. The club suddenly has a bit of interesting depth at several positions, and some actual questions to answer before the 2021 regular season gets underway.
On Tuesday, the club did make a few of those preliminary decisions, optioning Matt Manning and Alex Lange to minor league camp. Lange looked to have a chance to make the bullpen, which remains weak in terms of right-handers, so that move is probably the bigger surprise. As for Manning, the Tigers have all the reasons in the world to slow play him a little while longer, but the big right-hander should be back before too long.
For his part, A.J. Hinch has tried to keep his options open and seems committed to pushing players to seize a spot rather than bestowing anything on a player in lieu of other possibilities. We’ll have to see if it actually plays out that way in practice.
Another round of spring training cuts for the #Tigers: Matt Manning, Franklin Perez, Alex Lange, Zack Short and Christin Stewart optioned to Triple-A Toledo.— Evan Petzold (@EvanPetzold) March 16, 2021
Kody Clemens reassigned to mini-camp.
There are 42 players left in MLB camp.
The rotation is perhaps the unit of the roster giving Hinch and his pitching coaches the most to consider. The 2020 Tigers rotation was the worst in baseball, and so they should have no trouble improving on that. However, the actual amount of talent available to them is pretty high with the prospect pitchers all in the mix and substantial depth at hand. Managers always say they’re going to take the best five pitchers north to Detroit, but there are numerous complicating factors. This is where Hinch’s skill as a communicator is going to be tested, as there are going to be some unhappy pitchers as the final decisions are made.
First off, Spencer Turnbull is the only lock. However, Matthew Boyd is almost certainly going to take the second spot. There is real pressure on the 30-year-old Boyd to turn things around, but the Tigers are going to give him a lot of leash in what should be a decisive season in his career. That leaves three rotation spots, with the possibility that they could try a six man rotation early on to give them more time to evaluate everyone.
As always, teams are going to tend to play the guys they paid in the offseason, whether they’re shaky in spring training or not. Particularly with new free agent additions Julio Teheran and Jose Uréña looking sharp, it’s going to be hard not to take them both north for a long look. Teheran was signed on a minor league deal, but thus far has shown improved velocity and looked like one of the best pitchers in camp. There is the possibility that he could be held on the taxi squad for a month or so while the Tigers make decisions on some of their other options.
The “Big Three”
And after their innings buildups were interrupted by the COVID year, the Tigers are also going to watch their top prospect arms closely this season, trying to keep their workload under control while still allowing them to pitch as long as possible this season. Neither Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, nor Matt Manning has ever thrown a major league season’s worth of innings before.
How that plays out is hard to forecast. For a lot of pitchers, getting the better part of the year off might prove to be beneficial to their arm health rather than putting them at risk. Still, orthodoxy demands a steady buildup in innings for young pitchers until they show they can go 130 or so strong innings, and then you turn them loose. In the end, this may just depend on feel. If Mize, Manning, and Skubal are throwing well and holding their velocity beyond 100 innings, they can start to throttle back the workload, skip outings, and make sure they don’t become overtaxed in late August or September.
The late start to the minor league season also means that if the prospects are sent down, they’ll be in minor league camp without regular games for almost a full month before the Toledo Mud Hens season begins. It’s not ideal, but presumably that would allow the Tigers to keep their workload light until May, increasing the likelihood that when they’re ultimately called up, they’re available for most of the season with minimal restrictions.
In Manning’s case, there are valid reasons to slow play him this spring. He didn’t really pitch at all in 2020, had a mild forearm strain—the first hint of arm trouble in his career—and is working on a new breaking ball. So there were already ample reasons to give him time in the minors to work on that pitch before starting his major league clock. Of course, the biggest reason from the Tigers’ perspective is that waiting to call him up ensures that 2021 won’t count as a full year of service time toward Manning’s free agent clock. As a result, Manning was optioned to minor league camp on Tuesday, bringing the roster battle for rotation spots into even sharper relief.
While sending Manning down made sense, Skubal belongs in the Tigers starting rotation right now and it’s hard to make a good argument otherwise. The big lefty struggled somewhat in his 2020 debut, but the circumstances were terrible as Skubal was in camp only a couple of weeks before making his major league debut, all without having pitched much above the A-ball levels. Even so, the punchouts and the overall way his stuff played in 2020 bode very well for his success in 2021, and his work in spring training has only added to the optimism. Another solid outing against the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday should lock him into the rotation.
Casey Mize is a little trickier. The whiffs and bad swings he’s gotten against major league hitters argue that he’s ultimately going to figure things out. However, surprisingly inconsistent command since his shoulder trouble in 2019 has undermined his approach, as has a propensity for making the big mistake in pitcher-friendly counts. There probably isn’t much for Mize to learn outside of the major leagues this point, but it wouldn’t surprise us if the Tigers hold him back until he looks sharper.
That leaves us with Turnbull, Boyd, Teheran, Uréña, Skubal as the probable five-man starting rotation right now. There is also the possibility of starting with a six-man rotation to try to keep everyone’s workload light until the schedule really ramps up in May. In any case, the wild cards appear to be Michael Fulmer, Casey Mize, and Daniel Norris.
Outside looking in
On the surface, Fulmer would appear to have the inside track to a rotation spot based on past performance. The problem is that those better days are pretty far in the past now. In his first full season back from 2019’s UCL and knee surgeries, the Tigers very much hope the big right-hander can return to being an effective starter. However, everything we’ve seen since he returned argues against it.
Fulmer’s velocity is still down several mph from his prime years, and he was never known for his secondary offerings. While he’s re-tooled his mechanics and body again this offseason, and is incorporating his curveball more than ever to present a diverse pitch mix, those are a lot of changes to implement on the fly. He’s no longer the power pitcher wielding a fearsome pair of fastballs, and a full reinvention is probably required for Fulmer to find his way back to major league success. Neither he nor the Tigers would be best served by trying to pull that off at the major league level.
Fulmer has two options remaining, and the club should probably use one and let him work on things in Toledo for a while. Should the Tigers start Fulmer in the major leagues, he’ll reach a full five years of major league service time within a few weeks. At that point, he’ll have the right to decline an assignment to the minor leagues, so the window to do so is quite limited. The Tigers need to option him down now, and give him as much time as possible to reinvent his approach and work on his mechanics before bringing him back.
The final candidate of interest is Daniel Norris. The left-hander’s 2017-2018 seasons were largely lost to multiple surgeries and rehab stints for groin injuries. Norris learned to survive in those years with a fastball that barely scraped 90 mph, and came through the fire a better pitcher for it. He posted average numbers as a starter in 2019 before lobbying to finish the season with short three inning outings rather than be shut down over innings concerns. In those short outings he seemed to find his full confidence again, airing out his fastball and rediscovering the ability to touch 94 mph whenever he wants a little extra. However, in the process, Norris has now found himself pegged as more of a stopper or multi-innings reliever.
Frankly, Norris has looked excellent in spring camp and probably does deserve a shot in the rotation again. Hinch and new pitching coach Chris Fetter may get creative here and could use Norris as a sixth starter for a month while they continue their evaluations. The complicating factor is that Norris hasn’t stretched out beyond three innings since August of 2019, and it’s difficult to know if his stuff, velocity, and command would hold up well the second time through a batting order.
He’s also a free agent at year’s end, and so a likely candidate to be traded come July. A good left-handed reliever who can handle anything from a spot start to a late innings role may have more value in trade than an average starting pitcher. Ultimately, the decision-making here has to be best for his eventual trade value.
For his part, Hinch acknowledges Norris’ potential as a starter. The Tigers have Gregory Soto and Tyler Alexander already as lefties in the pen, with an outstanding camp from veteran Derek Holland looking likely to land him a bullpen role as well. So it isn’t as though there’s a dire need for Norris in the pen. However, Hinch has also consistently referred to Norris as a flexible “weapon” out of the bullpen. That’s generally taken to mean a role similar to that held by Andrew Miller in his heyday, coming into tight spots in the middle innings, while also standing ready to close out a game if need be. We’ll see if they actually use Norris that aggressively, but right now, he remains bound for the bullpen.
With only 12 Grapefruit League games remaining after Wednesday’s contest, we’re getting down to the wire. The rest of camp will be dominated by preparing the final roster for the regular season. By week’s end, the 40-man roster will be locked in with a further round of cuts. For anyone on the cusp, the time is now to make a good impression.